Thursday, November 18, 2004

Mistaking quality for elitism

Disclaimer: I wrote this letter to DH in response to an editorial page article. This was written before the 2003 CET fiasco.

This is regarding P L Vishweshwar Rao’s article "Elitism in Higher Education" (DH, Nov 19). Rao mentions all the right things – how the benefits of higher education have been reaped by the middle class, how India has a paltry 280 universities for a billion people, and how India has only 3.6 technical personnel for every 1000 people. But, the conclusions he draws from these statistics are way off the mark.Rao seems to be caught in a socialist-era time warp when quality was mistaken for elitism. Private education, when correctly regulated, leads to quality education. Many of the top universities in the United States are private universities. These universities admit many poor students who are funded by the government. Why can't we come up with such a scheme? Karnataka itself provides an excellent model. Allow private education, regulate standards and admissions, and support students either directly (paying their tuition) or indirectly (providing land grants or by contributing to teachers' salaries); quality education will then follow.In his enthusiasm for decrying private education, Rao forgets a few facts. Given the current state of government finances, there is no way the Central government or the state governments can finance the expansion of higher education that is required. Primary education, any day, is prime – when the state spends a paltry 1.7 per cent of the GDP on primary education, how can we expect it to support higher education? Also, what about the quality of education provided by the government- run colleges and schools?What we need are innovative strategies – private-public partnerships in education. The government should support poor students by direct or indirect means, while leaving the nitty-gritty of higher education to the private sector. It is nobody's case that the existing universities be privatised. All that the bill suggests is that new private universities be allowed.

Kanchi Shankaracharya's arrest

This letter is regarding the recent arrest of the Kanchi Shankaracharya on murder charges. While platitudes like the law taking its own course, and no one being above the law make for good press, the very manner of arrest flouts every accepted principle of criminal justice.

First, the timing of the arrest. Why was the Shankaracharya arrested at such an odd hour, in such a hurry? We've heard of many reasons - the Shankaracharya attempting to flee to Nepal, the possibility that the Shankaracharya might tamper with evidence, and finally, to prevent the DMK from harvesting the political capital of the case. All these defy logic. The Shankaracharya could have been prevented from flying out by simply alerting the ATCs; arresting him in the morning would not have made a difference to the evidence in the case, and finally, defying the law to arrest anyone for political reasons is making a mockery of our system of justice. If Karunanidhi's midnight arrest was not justified, on what grounds is this arrest justified?

Next, is the conduct of the government after the Shankaracharya's arrest. With no regards to his age or his standing in the community, the Shankaracharya has been made to stay in jail, has been forced to forego his ritual conduct and has limited access to people. He was not even allowed to speak to his lawyers - a fundamental right guaranteed to every citizen - after he was arrested. Not just that, he was only informed of his arrest in Chennai, while the arrest took place near Hyderabad. Nothing indicates the rot that has set in our system better than the fact that Taslimuddins, Telgis and other criminals receive first-class treatment in our prisons while respected gurus are thrown in jail, even when complete evidence against them is not available.

The arrest and its fallout are a direct attack on Hinduism in general and on Brahminical traditions in particular. For a long time, the treatment of Brahmins in Tamil Nadu has mirrored the treatment of the Jews in many European states during the last century. There has been a continuous effort on the part of the Dravidian movement to eliminate every trace of Brahminism from the state. This is unfortunate. What is more unfortunate is the active connivance of the communists and the media in this misinformed endeavour. While the Shankaracharya must be punished if proven guilty, there should not be a trial by the media. Furthermore, the media and the Tamil Nadu government must recognize that even the Shankaracharya is guaranteed certain unalienable rights by the constitution that must be respected at all times.

See an abridged version at: